Étienne de Crécy: Cubism
The highly influential producer and DJ has been touring his 'Beats N' Cubes' show this summer, descending on festivals including Les Vieilles Charrues in France and Standon Calling in England. Rockfort spoke to de Crécy about the cube, but also his early years. A detailed account of the Versaille crew's early years features in Martin James’s book ‘French Connections: From Discothèque to Discovery’, but this interview brings the story up to date.
Rockfort: What was it about Versailles at that time when you, Air and Alex Gopher were at the same school together?
E: Nothing really. The thing about Versailles is that it’s a very boring town, there’s nothing to do, it’s very conservative. So people who were interested in music and wanted to make music rapidly found each other. There wasn’t a big community of musicians.
Rockfort: Was there a desire to get away from Versailles as quickly as possible?
E: I wasn’t really there for that long actually. We moved there from Marseilles when I was 16, and left when I was 19. Other people took longer to leave, but as soon as I could I went to Paris. It was long enough, however, for me to meet the people that I still make music with today.
Rockfort: What did you have to work with when you started making music?
E: We all played in rock groups – I played bass, Alex (Gopher) played bass as well, we were in normal groups, the electronic thing wasn’t really there. More than that, it was something that I hated before I took ecstasy. Techno didn’t interest me at all, it was all about rock or hip-hop.
Rockfort: And you participated in some hip hop productions.
E: I was an assistant at the Studio Plus XXX (Ed: a renowned Parisian studio) and I took part in recording sessions for MC Solaar and people like that. I worked as an assistant, as a sound engineer, as a mixer. Up to the point that I discovered raves.
Rockfort: So ecstasy was what changed everything.
E: I wouldn’t have understood the music, or I would have taken longer to understand the music, without the drugs. Whereas there, I got it instantly!
Rockfort: Did you start working first on Pansoul or Super Discount?
E: At the same time. The thing was that when I discovered this music with Philippe (Zdar, later of Cassius), we were working in a recording studio in Paris, and we started buying records and decks for mixing and so on and we understood how it was made. We had access to all the mixing desks, the effects, the samplers. We knew it was very easy music to make, so we bought samplers and started doing it ourselves. It’s producer’s music, it’s about the gear. So we started the Motorbass album but it was quite gradual, we did some 12 inches first and then the other tracks. I had been living with Philippe but then at a certain point I met my wife and worked on Super Discount as well, so the two projects ended up coming out at about the same time.
Rockfort: It seems as though you and the other Versailles groups didn’t feel crippled by the weight of American or UK influences.
E: The guy who really influenced me in Motorbass was Kenny Dope, who was one of the few who made house with samples. We came from hip hop so we were used to using samples, but techno around ’92 was only made with synths, it was very hard, very violent. So Kenny Dope was a great source of inspiration – house with a hip-hop sound. That’s what influenced us in Motorbass and I think that was what was really specific about the French sound was that all the producers were people who listened to hip hop. At that point in hip hop, techno was just a taboo. No, there are hardly any samples in hip hop, it’s almost all electro.
Rockfort: Does that appeal to you?
E: I hardly listen to hip hop these days but I find that development interesting, Timbaland is a guy who interested me a lot. And then you get someone like Dangerdoom who doing something that’s really an old style.
Rockfort: Are you more attached to that style of hip hop?
E: I’m attached to novelty. That’s what I liked about techno, that it moved fast. A track would become obsolete in six or even three months, you couldn’t play it any more because it was old hat. Especially for French people, that was stranger and more modern than in England, where the idea of rapid turnover had been integrated into the culture for much longer.
Rockfort: Does that link to the concept of Super Discount?
E: Well Super Discount is something coherent, but I’m generally for the idea that this music is a utility, something you consume, it’s not a music of artists. I make music that DJs can use and play in nightclubs.
Rockfort: Like your ‘Fast Track’ which is about as functional as a title can get…
E: For that album I went looking at the names of all the peer-to-peer sites, and ‘Fast Track’ was one of those. It doesn’t exist anymore as it happens.
Rockfort: Was that a comment on those sites, on the changing methods of music distribution?
E: It wasn’t really a comment – the thing was there and that’s it. What’s interesting now is that it’s impossible to predict how this is going to develop, all this exchanging of files, no-one sees these things coming. For a while it was ringtones that were making lots of money but now they hardly sell any. It changes so quickly. The main thing I hope is that music doesn’t just become an advertising prop, which it seems to be becoming at the moment. Actually the idea I had for Super Discount 3 was to sell the names of tracks to different brands, so the first track might be called ‘Volkswagen’, the second one ‘Mercedes Class A’… that would be the next stage! (laughs)
Rockfort: Well that is effectively where the money is for artists now.
E: Yes, I mean for myself I make very few records. The money I make is from concerts and festivals, the festivals are sponsored by big brands, it’s advertising that keeps me fed.
Rockfort: The first Super Discount was more the idea of an old-style market. A more innocent consumerism?
E: Well it was more a play on that fact that, to begin with, Super Discount was four ten inches released one after another and they had such an impact that the distributor suggested putting them all together to make an album. So to begin with, it was more a joke on the very exclusive electronic music scene. It was also a visual idea, I could see all the posters in the street, something aesthetically pleasing, and I wanted to do something around that aesthetic.
Rockfort: Super Discount 2 saw you coming back to analogue sounds, which is a route that has been taken by a number of electronic artists of a certain era looking to recapture a certain innocence or freshness.
E: For me, it was because with Motorbass, on Super Discount and on Tempovision I’d only worked with samplers, but after Tempovision I’d had enough. In fact when I started making electronic music, I used the TR 808 and a Bassline synth that give you fewer options so it pushes you more to find interesting ideas. So when I got rid of the sampler I thought I’d buy those again, and I found a whole load of old synths that worked well with them, so I went from a set-up where I was always in front of a computer screen to one where there was no computer screen at all.
Rockfort: So what do you work with now? A bit of both?
E: Now I work with the set-up that I have in the cube, which is largely analogue. There’s no laptop. But it’s true that digital sound has progressed a lot, now the things you can do with a MacBook are incredible.
Rockfort: How did the cube come about?
Before the cube I toured Super Discount 2 for two years with Alex Gopher and Julien Delfaud, with all three of us on stage. And we did a tour that started from small clubs and grew to us playing on big stages in front of 8,000 to 10,000 people. There was no real show, it was just the three of us and lots of equipment, and I realised that on those large stages there was nothing for the audience to look at, just three guys looking very focused, pressing buttons. At that point, Daft Punk did Coachella and answered all the questions I had been asking myself in one go! I realised I didn’t have the means to do a show like that, but I met VJ architects Exyzt
and told them what I was looking for. After Super Discount 2, Julien and Alex had their own things, but I wanted to carry on playing live because I love it. So I told them (Exyzt) what I wanted, and they suggested the cube.
Rockfort: What was the reasoning behind the cube?
E: Well, I had told them that I wanted something that was very 8-bit, pixel-based, something quite simple and sober. And they had already started working on that idea so they said “We have just the thing.” A week later they showed me the first demo, and we started working together, with all the tracks, to find something that was very straightforward and clear. The first time I did it was at the end of 2007, at the Transmusicales festival.
Rockfort: Were you nervous?
E: Was I nervous? It was horrible! (laughs). I was as sick as a dog! It was my first time on stage by myself, we hadn’t rehearsed it – I saw the cube for the first time the afternoon before the show. Seriously, I had back pains, I hadn’t been sleeping properly for three months.
Rockfort: Have you been trying out any new tracks in the cube?
E: No, the new things I’m working on I try out when I’m DJ-ing and if they go down well, then I do them in the cube. But there’s a version 2.0 of the cube, with new tracks and new visuals. Eventually there will be a new album which is linked to the cube.
Rockfort: What happened to Solid, the label helped to set up (Ed: with Alex Gopher and Pierre-Michel Levallois)?
E: It came to a fairly natural end. The crisis in the music industry and a crisis in house music coincided, and we had a structure that was a bit too big for the new musical economy, so when we realised that things were slowing down we just chucked it in! Alex and I were the musicians and Pierre-Michel was the guy in charge of the business side, so he found a new job and me and Alex carried on with the label for a little while but we realised that carrying on like that without someone handling the business side could cause problems, so we opted to divide it between us so that we could carry on working together without money getting in the way.
Rockfort: How do you feel about Ed Banger and the new generation?
E: I love it, that distorted electro brought some fresh air into electronic music. Now we’re reaching the end of a second cycle. There isn’t the new sound yet that’s going to pick it up again, but what happened was great. It was thanks to them that it became cool to be an electronic musician again.
Interview by David McKenna and Ludovic Merle. Translated by David McKenna